Orders of the Day — Mr. Amarjit Singh

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:56 pm on 23 January 1996.

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Photo of Mr Jeremy Hanley Mr Jeremy Hanley , Richmond and Barnes 11:56, 23 January 1996

My hon. Friend the Member for North Bedfordshire (Sir T. Skeet) raises some important issues, and I welcome this opportunity to comment on the operation of our entry clearance system overseas and to make some points about the Singh case, although, as I hope that the House will understand, I am constrained from discussing that in great detail for reasons of confidentiality towards the applicant. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for the regular courtesy in the way in which he has expressed himself to my predecessor and myself.

First, some general points. Operating cost-effective immigration controls abroad entails facilitating the entry of genuine visitors. We need to facilitate the entry of business people, students and others who qualify under the immigration rules, while preventing the admission of those whose real intention is to work or settle here illegally.

I am conscious of the fact that business and tourist visitors provide a significant proportion of this country's invisible earnings. The United Kingdom is the world's sixth largest tourist destination, with about 20.6 million visits in 1994, and it is the third largest destination for international conferences.

The tourism industry contributes 5.3 per cent. of gross domestic product and creates 1.5 million jobs, so it would clearly be foolhardy to operate a visa-issuing system that was so restrictive or obstructive that it damaged such an important contribution to our national economy. Obviously, we are careful to avoid doing so, as becomes clear from a glance at the figures.

In 1994—the last full year for which figures are available—out of the 20.6 million visits, our embassies and consular posts overseas processed 1.32 million visa applications. More than 1 million of those applications were for short-term entry clearance, either to visit this country or to study here for a period of less than six months. Of that number, just over 900,000–901,560 for the record—visas were issued, mostly on examination of the paperwork or after an interview lasting less than three minutes. I regard that as providing an efficient and professional service to travellers.

Entry clearance is carried out in 159 posts and accounts for 9.3 per cent. of Foreign and Commonwealth Office expenditure overseas. After the introduction of the common visa list later this year, that is likely to rise to 10.13 per cent. Entry clearance work is demand-led but fees for entry clearance work covered 83 per cent. of its cost in 1993–94 and it is Government policy to move eventually to self-sufficiency on a full-cost basis.

The level of entry clearance fees, which is reviewed annually, was last raised in January 1995. The fee for a settlement entry clearance will increase in two further stages to achieve full cost recovery in 1997–98. Work in 1994–95 required 915 man-years of staff time and generated £38 million in entry clearance fees.

At present, nationals of 87 countries require visas to enter the United Kingdom, but that figure will rise to 101 as a result of the common visa list. Our visa operation overseas is managed from the London end by the migration and visa department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which, in conjunction with the immigration service of the Home Office, runs 10 training courses a year for 120 to 140 prospective entry clearance officers. Each course lasts for three weeks, at the end of which time officers are expected to have a clear understanding of the immigration rules and the necessary knowledge to relate each individual application to those rules. No officer is posted overseas to do entry clearance work unless he or she has successfully completed that course.

Entry clearance officers, although relatively low in rank, are people of integrity, who are fully trained for their work. However, the training of entry clearance officers does not stop with the successful completion of the training course. Once in post, officers receive guidance and on-the-job training from the entry clearance manager and from his or her more experienced colleagues. Most of our larger visa issuing posts also run regular training courses for their staff. A series of regional training conferences has been held over the past two years.

All applications for entry clearance to the United Kingdom are considered in accordance with the statement of changes in immigration rules laid before the House on 23 May 1994. All applications for entry clearance must be made overseas. Applicants are required to complete a visa application form and pay the appropriate fee. After the application and any supporting documents provided by the applicant have been checked, an entry clearance officer can, in straightforward circumstances, issue the visa without further inquiries. In fact, about 68.3 per cent. of all applicants are dealt with in that way.

The balance of applicants are required to attend an interview to establish their intentions. Those who are unable to speak or understand English are interviewed in their own language with the aid of an official interpreter. At the beginning and end of the interview, the applicant is asked whether he or she could understand the interpreter and the questions. If there is no official interpreter, arrangements can be made for interpretation. A personal interview is thus an essential part of the entry clearance process where the application is less than straightforward.

Interviews are conducted according to standard guidelines and are designed not to intimidate or otherwise distress applicants. ECOs endeavour to ask questions in a courteous and tactful way and make allowances for applicants who appear nervous, especially those who have previously been refused entry clearance.

It is regrettable that not all applications are successful, but it is important to keep a sense of proportion about the refusal rate. In 1994, we issued about 1 million visas, and over 90 per cent. of those who applied for entry clearance were granted it. I should add that a decision to refuse entry clearance is never taken lightly. I can assure my hon. Friend that, in reaching their decisions, entry clearance officers take all the relevant factors into account, including information supplied by right hon. and hon. Members and by sponsors. Correspondence is also taken into account. I have seen the files. I have seen files at many posts throughout the world. I make a point of looking at files and the evidence written down by ECOs at interviews. It strikes me that, ultimately, the applicant's motives and intentions decide whether entry clearance is granted. That is so in the case of Mr. Amarjit Singh.

The facts of the case—I repeat that these are the facts that I am prepared to give tonight for privacy reasons—are that Mr. Amarjit Singh has applied three times for entry clearance to visit his seriously ill grandmother. There is no doubt of that. But he has failed to satisfy an entry clearance officer on each occasion that he genuinely seeks entry only for the purpose and period stated, that he is a genuine visitor and will leave the United Kingdom at the end of his visit.

As my hon. Friend said, entry clearance was refused in August 1993, October 1994 and March 1995. At interview, the entry clearance officer learned of the compassionate nature of the case. It also emerged that Mr. Singh is young—he is 25 years old—and earns a modest monthly income. He told the ECO that an aunt living in the UK helped to support the family in India and would pay for his visit. Mrs. Kaur also has closer relatives living in India who have not applied for entry clearance to visit her.

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in pursuing this matter with my Department. No hon. Member could have done more. He has written several times in support of the application and had a meeting with my predecessor on 6 February 1995 to discuss it personally. He had another meeting with me on 4 December 1995. He handed over additional evidence of the deteriorating health of Mr. Singh's grandmother, Mrs. Seso Kaur, which was passed to the ECO. But that does not necessarily say anything about Mr. Singh's intention to return to India.

The ECO was aware of the compassionate circumstances—Mr. Singh's grandmother's illness—and took that into consideration. But he also had to take into account Mr. Singh's personal circumstances in India and other factors that emerged at interview. As in all cases where an application is refused, the decision on Mr. Singh's latest application was referred to the entry clearance manager in New Delhi. He also gave proper consideration to the compassionate circumstances and to my hon. Friend's representations of interest and support, but was satisfied that, on the evidence available, the decision was correct and in accordance with the immigration rules. It is not reasonable to review a case that has already been thoroughly evaluated in the light of my hon. Friend's strong representations since 1993 without fresh evidence.

The judgment of those two officers was applied independently to the question whether, on the balance of probabilities, Mr. Singh was a genuine visitor who would leave the UK at the end of his visit. Using the balance of probabilities as the benchmark means that an ECO must be "satisfied". That is all. He need not be convinced outright or subject to gilt-edged, copper-bottomed assurances or guarantees, but simply satisfied.

The balance of probabilities works like any other balance: if one puts more weight in the form of new evidence on one end of the scales, they will tilt in a different direction. That is the way forward in this case, and my hon. Friend mentioned certain details that could be useful on a further application. A fresh application based on satisfactory evidence that only a visit is intended could be helpful.